Fighting Disease with Paper Power

Could diseases be detected and prevented using paper and tape? The concept could have massive health effects for millions worldwide.

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When you think of diagnostic tests, you probably imagine a laboratory full of complex machines and equipment. In most urban centres this is where samples would be sent to test for food borne pathogens. But what if you do not have access to this technology because you live in a remote or developing area? Frédérique Deiss, a post-doctoral fellow in the Derda Research Group at the University of Alberta, wants to be able to bring any type of science that can be found in a super-equipped lab into a very small tent somewhere in the desert, and to give every population in the world the ability to use and to access the technology.

Her current project is the development of a low-cost diagnostic tool made from paper and tape that can detect bacteria, such as salmonella or E. coli, in milk, food and water. Some areas do not have the infrastructure to regularly monitor for food borne pathogens, so her goal was to create technology that can be applicable in the middle of nowhere. She chose paper because it is readily available almost everywhere and it is not difficult to train people to construct the tool she has developed on site. Low cost, point-of-care devices for early disease detection or even prevention is the ultimate goal. With this device, farmers could perform the tests themselves every day rather than once a week, and help to prevent people from getting sick.

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In 2006, Frédérique received the degree of Ingénieur from the National Engineering School of Physics and Chemistry of Bordeaux (ENSCPB), and a Science and Technology Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Bordeaux, France. She went on with a Ph.D. of the University of Bordeaux, in Chemistry-Physics, received in 2009 with high distinction, after three years of research under the supervision of Neso Sojic in the Analytical Nanosystems group. She developed optoelectrochemical micro- and nano-sensor arrays for bioanalytical applications at the tip of optical fiber bundles. During her doctoral research, she has also been a visiting PhD student in various research groups including David R. Walt’s group (Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA), Paolo Ugo’s group (University of Venice, Italy), and Paolo Pastore’s group (University of Padova, Italy). She pursued her research activities as a postdoctoral fellow in the Whitesides group (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA) developing, in particular, low-cost paper-based electrochemical diagnostic devices. In 2012, she joined the Derda group, where she continues to develop paper-based bio-analytical platforms, with a microbiological aspect. She was recently selected as one of Grand Challenges Canada’s Starts in Global Health and received funding for her recent work on a paper diagnostic tool to detect food borne pathogens.


Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.